How ‘Touch of Grey’ ‘Almost Killed’ the Grateful Dead
"Touch of Grey" was the most commercially successful song of the Grateful Dead’s career, but their longtime promoter admits there was a downside.
“They never really had any hit singles,” John Scher said during an appearance on The Bob Lefsetz Podcast. “They had one hit single, ‘Touch of Grey,’ which almost killed everybody.”
Of course, the Grateful Dead had long been a massively popular live act. “I remember standing out on the hill at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, completely sold out, and there were like 10,000 kids outside the fence,” Scher noted. “And finally they broke the fence down and they came over. They came over the fence like lemmings."
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Demand for the band became unbearable when "Touch of Grey" reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and No. 9 on the Hot 100, heights no other Grateful Dead single came close to matching.
“So they were huge underground,” Scher recalled. “But then [‘Touch of Grey’] goes mainstream and so the shows get overwhelmed with people trying to break in.”
These concerts were communal affairs, with the band taking pride in the welcoming atmosphere of their shows. Yet the popularity of their 1987 single suddenly raised ticket demand to an unsafe level. “It became clear to everybody we couldn't play amphitheaters anymore,” Schur explained.
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Citing safety concerns, Scher suggested the Grateful Dead start playing larger venues – but the band pushed back. “They never wanted to play stadiums. They had turned me down two years in a row to play stadiums,” Scher recalled. “The last year that we did amphitheaters, it was so amok, some of the amphitheaters said, you just can't come back.”
Part of the reason the Dead wanted to avoid stadiums was to keep ticket prices affordable for their fans.
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Eventually, Scher and the group reached a compromise. “I said, ‘How about this: What if I got a support act that was big enough in each of those cities to be a sellout one-night arena act and they opened for you? And all we had to do was to up the ticket price by five dollars.”
The Grateful Dead agreed to this and Scher proceeded to align the band with some remarkable acts.
“So one year it was Steve Winwood, one year it was Crosby, Stills and Nash,” he said. “One year it was Bob Dylan and Tom Petty together. One year it was just Dylan and the Grateful Dead backed up Dylan. So it was a spectacular success, spectacular success.”
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Gallery Credit: Nick DeRiso
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